Saturday, November 6, 2010


The genome of every living creature on this planet is a mind-bogglingly complex text of digital information. Our own genome contains more information than the Encyclopaedia Britannica and if written out in full would fill far more library shelves. The improbability of hordes of immortal chimpanzees bashing randomly on typewriters and thereby producing even a single speech of Hamlet is nothing compared to the improbability of our genetic text’s having arisen by chance. So anyone thinking about life clearly has a very large problem to solve, since in our experience, complex and specified information (which is what the genome is) does not arise by accident.

No-one with any imagination can fail to be entranced by Richard Dawkins’ books. Without exception, they all contain masterly descriptions of the most jaw-dropping, improbable, magical yet wholly physical processes. Facts that enthral and amaze are described and explained with impressive literary skill. We have a right to question, however, whether what is offered is science. Given that no-one has the faintest idea how life emerged from non-life, how the vast quantities of encoded digital information in the genome arrived there, and given that these are fundamental questions for an evolutionary theorist, one has to be sceptical of his confident assertions to say the least. Dawkins declares his faith in chance and selection and expresses faith on the subject of life’s emergence: “We’re working on it.” But the Intelligent Design folk also express faith and announce with regard to both emergence and adaptation of life: “God did it”. The bottom line is that neither knows because nobody knows; yet both believe. Their faith is a device for claiming knowledge where there is none. In both cases it is remarkably similar to the old belief in spontaneous generation. Faith in theism or faith in deterministic materialism is still faith. But faith is not science.

Since science is essentially a descriptive method directed towards the representation in ever more precise terms of ever smaller-scale features of the material world, it moves progressively further away from the sort of grand syntheses that were still possible in Darwin’s simpler age, when the cell was thought of as an uncomplicated blob of protoplasm rather than the complex computerised factory that it is. Since Dawkins is still devoted to grand syntheses involving ideas on God, just-so stories about how things came about and so on, without real understanding of the essential facts, it is evident that what we have in his writings is metaphysics masquerading as science. It is metaphysics moreover in which miracles appear to play as prominent a role as they do in ID.

The differences between the Dawkins-style account of the evolution of life on earth and that of the proponents of so-called Intelligent Design (a very ill-chosen notion) are less important than their similarities. The similarities are all to do with an open-mouthed admiration of the staggering and improbable complexity of life and of the information-rich organisation it displays, from the molecular level to the cellular and on upwards to the level of complete organisms. But more importantly, they are both to do with propaganda for a particular world-view.

Both accounts work boldly with massive unknowns where caution would be wiser; so both ultimately postulate a source of miracles in the impenetrable set of evolutionary steps by which information is created in the genome from the first reproducer onwards. This is evident in the ‘awe’ and ‘wonder’ that both sides claim in their contemplation of the processes of life, because things that are fully understood do not provoke awe. The differences in the two accounts arise in the attitude each side takes to these unknowns. The Dawkins-style thinkers claim to understand the unknowns (if only ‘in principle’); the ID proponents consciously leave them outside the range of human understanding and put them in some ‘divine’ realm. But both, we cannot stress too much, do not understand what they describe, however much they might believe they do. No-one does. We are thus dealing with miracles in both cases.

For the ID proponents, this source of miracles is a mind – let’s say the mind of some god. Though as Dawkins also allows, it could be some powerful alien intelligence within the universe. Encoded and purposeful information can only be generated by a mind, the ID people argue, and thus the very complicated information in the genome of even the simplest of organisms has to originate in a very complex mind. Now it is important to stress that the ID theoreticians do not claim to understand such a mind – except by analogy with their own – but simply postulate it abductively as the best explanation of the phenomenon. To this extent, their understanding is consciously negative.

The Dawkins-style theoreticians, on the other hand, argue that the information arrives in the genome by strictly materialistic processes that they claim to understand – at this stage ‘in principle’ only, but positively nevertheless. But whereas the ID proponents avoid any claim that they understand the process of information generation, the Dawkins-style theoreticians feign full and positive understanding without qualm. They pretend that we, the human race, are already in possession of a grasp on all the essential material processes involved in the purely random and purely physical steps by which complex information is generated in the genome. They insist that it is only a matter of time before all the actual detail is supplied for a definitive and absolute analysis of the mechanism. In actual fact, they are in a state of ignorance that exactly parallels that of the ID proponents, with this difference: they gloss over their lack of understanding. They therefore believe in a miracle while claiming to have grasped its non-miraculous nature. They have, of course, not grasped anything of the sort. If one refers to a ‘god-of-the-gaps’ with respect to ID then one surely has to refer to a similar ‘evolution-of-the-gaps’ with respect to Dawkins. There is simply no known physical mechanism for information-generation, no known law according to which information can arise from non-information. Those who claim to understand either lie or delude themselves.

Both the Dawkins-camp and the ID camp have no more than belief, more or less strongly held.

In saying of the information in the genome, “God put it there” the ID proponents are satisfied with that because the analogy with their own intelligence seems to provide some measure of understanding. It does not require much intelligence to see that such a view could never satisfy the Dawkins-style scientific mind. Why not? The answer to this involves scientism and the scientistic (not ‘scientific’) ego. Scientism claims that only reductive, naturalistic science produces knowledge. It is in the nature of the scientistic ego not to be satisfied with anything less than a full and complete grasp on the phenomenon concerned in mechanical terms; and it will confidently claim that grasp whatever the state of science. In science we have to have the mechanism, where ‘mechanism’ means material process. We don’t have this in evolutionary theory, but unfortunately, the scientistic ego regularly claims full understanding where it only has belief. A chief difference between the ID proponents and the Dawkins-style theoreticians is this: if you scratch a defender of ID you quickly discover faith; Dawkins and his followers, however, work hard to disguise their faith as science. But on the question as to how information gets into the genome, faith turns out to be providing the answer in both cases. The presence of complex specified information in the genome is a complete enigma.

But those who claim to understand life either do understand or they do not. They cannot have it both ways. But do they understand how the information of the genome got there? No. So why do they claim to understand how life evolved? The scientistic ego wants to claim that it understands everything that it understands by means of its own unaided efforts alone and that any other type of understanding is not understanding at all. The trouble with this is that it can sometimes lead an ego to declare fervently that it understands the miracles it observes when it does not. There is then only a short step from that to dogmatic claims of definitive understanding where one only has an imperfect and provisional model. Some scientific egos have always practised this kind of self-delusion or dishonesty, which is why there has always been scientific orthodoxy of one sort or another that has tried to stifle debate. Such scientific orthodoxy exactly parallels the discredited religious orthodoxy of the past or present.

As an example of this claiming understanding where none actually exists, take Dawkins’ computer model that generates the sentence ‘methinks it is like a weasel’ from a random string of letters, in only 43 steps. Dawkins greets with loud cries of victory the fact that his computer programme homes in on the target phrase so quickly; and he announces that this proves in principle the ability of random processes in nature to come up with complex, coherent encoded information. The most incompetent IT specialist can see in an instant that this is a bit of crude propagandistic mystification. The process is not only not random, it is pre-determined from the start by the target phrase at which the programme aims and by the ‘selection’ principles by means of which similarities to the target phrase in the configuration of letters are retained. It is guided by intelligence. The whole thing is a clumsy set-up and yet vast numbers of people are inveigled into the belief that this constitutes a true model of the process by which information arrives in the genome. This is not understanding, it is belief in miracles masquerading as understanding and bolstered by fraud. Why does Dawkins do this?

The answer to this last question is found in Dawkins’ ego. He wants to claim a full grasp of the phenomenon, whatever the cost. Even at the cost of appearing ridiculous in the eyes of people he should most want to convince, namely the information-theoreticians. But it doesn’t matter: for the ego, it is more important to claim full understanding and play to an adoring crowd of worshippers than actually to understand. That is the nature of the ego, scientistic or otherwise. Self-love, self-regard, pride and vanity will always compel the ego to claim understanding of processes that are not understood. Some scientific egos thus manages to believe in miracles while denying the miraculous, while covering up the miraculous in a veneer of half-understanding. Dawkins may well believe that he does understand where in fact he doesn’t. That, too, is in the nature of the ego and always has been. It is a matter of the personal investment the individual has made in a certain set of ideas that determines the strength of the belief. The step from here to oppressive propaganda is, by the way, a very small one.

So the difference between belief in Dawkins-style evolution by natural selection (so-called ‘neo-Darwinism’) on the one hand, and Intelligent Design, on the other, is not understanding of the scientific detail, which is actually neutral as to any final conclusion. The grasp of factual detail, moreover, is probably equal on both sides despite the mutual vituperation. It is rather the world-view and the personal, ego-driven attitude to the fundamental processes involved that constitutes the core of the difference. Neither the ID people nor those of the Dawkins camp understand the fundamental information-rich processes of life nor how the information got there. No-one does. But both claim a kind of understanding in quasi-mythical terms. The acrimonious conflict – which is a separate issue – arises from the difference of attitude. The ID people are prepared to remain within the realm of analogy (as are all religious minds) and postulate a divine intelligence grasped dimly on analogy with our own intelligence. The Dawkins-style evolutionists want to claim full possession, by their individual ego, of understanding in commonsense materialistic terms, where in fact they only have a set of images. It is a matter of the degree to which the ego is flattered by the belief in question that determines the ferocity with which it is defended.

The ID proponents are willing to leave things ultimately to a universal, non-human intelligence. The Dawkins-style thinkers will accept only what they believe fully to have grasped with the resources of their own rational ego alone. What is it then that allows one side to accept the miracle with a kind of gratitude and leave it at that, but that pushes the other side to claim understanding of the miracle that it does not possess? The answer is religious subservience, on the one hand, and the vanity of the scientistic ego on the other. The religious mind has always been satisfied with analogies; the scientific ego has often rushed to judgment in any claim to understanding. Certain egos will always want to claim absolute finality for their belief, whether religious or scientific. This latter fact is the reason why the history of science, no less than the history of religion, is a history of theories that rule as orthodoxy for a while and are then overturned despite the resistance of the orthodox, as Kuhn has described. The orthodox theories are always overturned by an upcoming generation that sees the shortcomings of the prevailing wisdom and is not prepared to claim understanding where it has only a pleasing model. The orthodox, who are always quick to claim that the theories are not theories but facts, have to die off and disappear physically before their influence gradually wanes.

But let’s be quite clear about understanding: as humans, we only really understand what we ourselves make. We only really understand our technology and our mathematics. We cannot reconstruct the history of the world and of life upon it, so we should recognise that we have only myths and models in the domain of evolution where all is a matter of historical interpretation.

The tussle between the Dawkins-style theoreticians and the defenders of ID is a battle for people’s minds, a battle that strives to convert people to a faith: deterministic materialism, on the one hand, or theism on the other. It is in both cases propaganda. Faith has no place in science and it is no surprise that the faith of the ID defenders is rejected. But so should Dawkins’ faith in naturalism be rejected. Both should be banished by the scientific community. It is really time that a truly scientific consensus rejected both. It is time that it repelled dogmatic figures such as Dawkins with as much vigour as it rejects the essentially religious character of the ID movement. Both damage the scientific enterprise. Neither of these two types of theory does any service to science since both rely on accounts of miracles cloaked in ideology. Science can never be identical with any ideology, be it theism or naturalism, for ideology kills free inquiry. The ID movement, if victorious, would stultify scientific investigation. But so would the Dawkins-style approach. Both claim an understanding they do not have. The ID people should stick to their religious convictions and not claim to be doing science. The Dawkins-camp should abandon their claims to complete materialistic understanding of the miraculous processes they describe and just do the science, going wherever the evidence leads – even if it leads away from naturalism.

One last thought: many a scientific life has been enriched and made more productive by religious sensibility even if this meant developing a scepticism as to the ability of science to provide definitive answers; and every true religious consciousness is rejuvenated by doubt, even if this has occasionally entailed a conversion to atheism as a necessary stage in the growth of consciousness. Great innovators of the past have often demonstrated that science has nothing to fear from religion, nor religion from science. The two have often cross-fertilized each other with great befit to both. They are both doing different things, without necessarily being ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ in Gould’s phrase. Along with poetry, philosophy, art and music they are aspects of the continuing human interrogation of the cosmos; and as yet, this interrogation (thankfully) does not have only one idiom and is not practised in only one register.